President Donald Trump seemed to have very different things to say about Covid-19 when he spoke in public — at press conferences and TV appearances — than when he spoke to journalist Bob Woodward one-on-one.
In public comments, Trump took a tone that downplayed the coronavirus — making it seem like the virus would go away quickly, and emphasizing the need to reopen the country to try to get the economy going again.
With Woodward, Trump warned about the risks of the virus in frank and scary terms, calling it “the plague,” acknowledging it’s deadlier than the flu, and saying it could spread by air.
This was, apparently, deliberate. As Trump also told Woodward on March 19, “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Of course, this is not how viruses work. While Trump tried to downplay the risks, Covid-19 continued to spread across America. As of September 16, the nation has reported more than 6.6 million confirmed cases and nearly 200,000 deaths. It still reports the most daily new coronavirus deaths out of any developed country.
“There was a failure to realize what an efficiently spreading respiratory virus for which we have no vaccine and no antiviral meant,” Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, previously told me. “From the very beginning, that minimization … set a tone that reverberated from the highest levels of government to what the average person believes about the virus.”
In other words, Trump’s deception left America unprepared for the virus. The president claimed it was intentional, part of an attempt to keep the country upbeat. But we now know we were misled — to deadly results.
“Deadly stuff” versus “It’s going to disappear”
In February, Trump told Woodward that the virus was “deadly stuff,” more dangerous than the flu and potentially transmitting through the air. (CNN has audio recordings of Trump’s comments.)
February 7, to Woodward: “It goes through air, Bob. That’s always tougher than the touch. You know, the touch, you don’t have to touch things, right? But the air, you just breathe the air, and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one, that’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than your — you know, your, even your strenuous flus. … This is more deadly. This is five per — you know, this is five percent versus one percent and less than one percent. You know? So this is deadly stuff.”
Yet in public, Trump took a very different tone. He consistently suggested that the virus was under control, soon to disappear “like a miracle.” In early March, Trump totally contradicted his comments to Woodward by suggesting the coronavirus was less deadly than the flu.
January 30, in a speech: “We think we have it very well under control. We have very little problem in this country at this moment — five. And those people are all recuperating successfully.”
February 26, at a press conference: “When you have 15 people [infected by the coronavirus in the US], and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”
February 27, at a White House meeting: “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
March 9, on Twitter: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
Acknowledging the risks to the young — but cheering for packed churches
Later in March, Trump acknowledged to Woodward that the coronavirus could affect not just old people but young people, too. But he added that he prefers to downplay the threat.
March 19, to Woodward: “Now it’s turning out it’s not just old people, Bob. Just today and yesterday, some startling facts came out. It’s not just old, older. Young people too — plenty of young people. … I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
In public, Trump soon started suggesting the economy should take priority over dealing with Covid-19, continuing to suggest that the virus wasn’t a major threat to the US. He even said that the recently initiated lockdowns and stay-at-home orders could end by Easter (on April 12).
March 22, on Twitter: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”
March 24, on Fox News: “Easter’s a very special day for me. … You’ll have packed churches all over our country. … I think it’ll be a beautiful time.”
“This thing is a killer” vs. “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!”
In April, Trump described the coronavirus in terrifying terms to Woodward.
April 13, to Woodward: “This thing is a killer if it gets you. If you’re the wrong person, you don’t have a chance. … So this rips you apart. … It is the plague.”
That was quite different from what Trump was saying in public at the time, indicating that the virus was already well on its way to defeat in the US. He soon after sent his “LIBERATE” tweets, demanding that states reopen their economies.
April 10, on Twitter: “The Invisible Enemy will soon be in full retreat!”
April 17, on Twitter: “LIBERATE MINNESOTA! … LIBERATE MICHIGAN! … LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd amendment. It is under siege!”
The one consistency: Avoiding the blame
There’s one thing Trump was consistent about: Whether in public comments or his interviews with Woodward, he never took responsibility for the virus spreading out of control in the US.
July 21, to Woodward: “The virus has nothing to do with me. It’s not my fault. … China let the damn virus out.”
August 14, to Woodward: “Nothing more could have been done. Nothing more could have been done. I acted early. I acted early.”
Trump took a similar stance when asked, in press conferences and interviews, about the US’s failures to build up testing and prevent the deaths of more than 1,000 Americans a day to Covid-19.
March 13, at a press conference, when asked about tests: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
July 28, in a televised interview, referring to 1,000 deaths a day: “It is what it is.”
Trump failed, and more people have died as a result
This is not just something that makes Trump look bad or exposes the bullshitter that he is. During a major crisis, particularly a pandemic, clear and transparent communication is one of the most important things leaders can do to keep the public and other officials not only informed but also ready to act. By consistently downplaying the threat of the virus, Trump worked to disarm one of the country’s biggest weapons — public action — against a major disease.
As Céline Gounder, an epidemiologist at New York University, told me in the early days of the pandemic, “You really need very strong leadership from the top.”
Trump’s downplaying of the virus extended not just to his public comments, but the actions taken by him and his administration, too. He’s called for less testing, arguing that more tests make the US look bad by revealing more cases — and his task force successfully pushed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to, in effect, recommend less testing. His staff has simultaneously pushed the CDC to change scientific reports and studies because they might make Trump look bad by contradicting his evidence-less claims about Covid-19. He pushed the CDC out of a public leadership role after an official there made grim — but correct — comments about what to expect under the coronavirus.
Trump has even contradicted his own administration’s recommendations to push a rosy image of the country’s fight against Covid-19, demanding that states reopen quickly, before they met his administration’s recommendations, and getting parts of the public to think (wrongly) that masking is unhelpful or unnecessary, as his administration recommends public use of masks.
Now America is doing quite badly in its fight against Covid-19. The US hasn’t seen the most coronavirus deaths of all wealthy nations, but it’s in the bottom 20 percent for deaths since the pandemic began, and reports seven times the deaths as the median developed country. If the US had the same Covid-19 death rate as, say, Canada, 115,000 more Americans would likely be alive today.
Overall, Covid-19 cases in the US are now declining after the country’s recent surge. But that’s in large part because people have ignored much of what Trump has said: The public, as well as many cities, counties, and states, have embraced social distancing, particularly indoors, and masking — likely driving down new infections.
At the same time, the US’s number of cases and deaths remains unacceptably high; over the past week, nearly 900 Americans have died each day, on average, from Covid-19. Some US outbreaks continue to pop up as well, with states in the Midwest and South recently hit hard.
This is the reality Trump tried to downplay. And we’re stuck with those consequences — those infections, those deaths — no matter how the president tries to spin the pandemic.